United States Constitution

PREAMBLE : We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution



The Eighth Amendment

Text of Constitution:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The 'Travis Translation' of Constitution:

Anyone accused of a federal crime will not be required to pay bail that is out of proportion to the crime. Fines (money) charged to punish criminals must be reasonable, and any other punishment must not be cruel or unusual.

Prohibition Against Excessive Bail Important Cases
Bail is money a defendant can pay to the court in exchange for being released from jail before a trial. Judges set the amount of bail based on a defendant’s worth, as well as in consideration of the crime. If paid, the defendant is set free, and the money is returned when the defendant shows up for the trial. Bail is both an incentive for a defendant to not flee before a trial, as well as a way for pre-trial defendants to avoid jail time.

Thus, according the 8th Amendment, bail may not be overly excessive. For example, in Stack v. Boyle (1951), a number of individuals were arrested, accused of being Communist collaborators. The court set bail for each defendant at $50,000, and the defendants petitioned the court to reduce the bail – producing evidence that they could not afford such a large sum. Eventually, the case went before the Supreme Court, which held that – considering the alleged crime and the defendants’ resources – the bail was unconstitutionally excessive.

Still, bail does not have to be offered in every single instance. For example, in United States v. Salerno (1987), the Supreme Court agreed that if a defendant could be shown to be dangerous to the community at large, he did not have to be offered the opportunity to be released from jail before a trial.

 Stack v. Boyle (1951)

United States v. Salerno (1987)
Introduction to the Prohibition Against Cruel and Unusual Punishment Important Cases

As a footnote, it is also worth mentioning that, like most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights, the 8th Amendment does apply to the states (both the cruel and unusual punishment clause as well as the excessive bail clause), even though these amendments were originally only constraints against the federal government. Today, these amendments have been incorporated into the 14th Amendment, which does apply to the states. The 8th Amendment, too, applies to the states through the 14th.

The Death Penalty Important Cases
Today, while some states choose to give the death penalty in certain instances, for a time, it was unclear if the death penalty was even constitutional. In Furman v. Georgia (1972), through several different convictions, the Court reviewed the death penalty in general. While the Justices could not come to a majority consensus on their reasoning, they were able to decide that all of the convictions, and subsequent death penalty sentences, were unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment. The Court held that the death penalty was being carried out in an inconsistent manner – often with biases toward African Americans. This decision had the effect of temporarily stopping the carrying out of the death penalty throughout the United States. For a time, it was unclear whether states would attempt to reform their systems to create a fairer death penalty – or whether the Furman decision would stand for the death knell of the death penalty in the United States.

Within a few years, however, states did make changes. The death penalty again wound its way back to the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia (1976)/ In Gregg, the state of Georgia had changed its death penalty statute from requiring that the jury decide guilt and innocence at the same time as the sentence to requiring a so-called bifurcated trial. In the first stage, a jury decides whether or not the defendant is guilty. In the second stage, the jury decides the sentence. The Court found this measure sufficient to remedy the 8th Amendment concerns. The death penalty could be constitutional if practiced correctly and not arbitrarily. This case served to lift what had become, essentially, a moratorium on the death penalty throughout the country.

Still, the scope of the death penalty has continued to contract. As is explained below, it is no longer permitted for defendants under the age of 18. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Court held that it is also not permitted for defendants with mental disabilities. In Coker v. Georgia (1977), the Court held that the death penalty could not be given for the rape of a woman. In Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), the Court went a step further and decided that it could not even be given for the rape of a child. Instead, today, the death penalty is only allowed in cases where either the crime resulted in the death of a victim, or the crime is “against the state” (treason and espionage, for example).

 Furman v. Georgia (1972)

Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

Coker v. Georgia (1977)

Atkins v. Virginia (2002)

Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008)
Juvenile Sentences Important Cases
The Supreme Court cases involving the juvenile death penalty effectively illustrate the Court’s ability to adapt with changing social norms regarding what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the Court addressed the conviction of a 15-year-old in Oklahoma. At trial, the jury found the boy guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. However, the Court reversed this judgment, finding that the death penalty for children under the age of 16 was an unconstitutional violation of the 8th Amendment. The Court upheld this line one year later in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), when it specifically allowed the death penalty for those aged 16 and 17.

However, this standard has not held up. Recently, the Court again addressed the death penalty for juveniles in Roper v. Simmons (2005). There, the Court rejected its earlier decisions in Thompson and Stanford, and held that the 8th Amendment prohibited all death penalties for under the 18 of 18.

Moreover, the Court went a step further in Graham v. Florida (2010), when it held that even the punishment of life without parole for those under 18 constituted cruel and unusual punishment as well.

 Ingraham v. Wright (1977)

Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988)

Stanford v. Kentucky (1989)

Roper v. Simmons (2005)

Graham v. Florida (2010)

Jackson v. Hobbs (2012)
Incarceration Important Cases

For example, in the early case of Weems v. United States (1910), a man was sentenced to 15 years in prison in the Philippines. At the time, the Philippines was an American colony, having been won by the United States in the Spanish-American War of the late 19th century. This prisoner was sentenced as a result of his fraudulently falsifying documents, obviously a crime. The Court, however, held the sentence to be cruel and unusual. Not only was 15 years in prison considered excessive for the crime in question, but the sentence came with an added ‘hard labor’ requirement. On balance, then, this sentence was held to be wildly disproportionate, and thus unconstitutional.

 Weems v. United States (1910)

Robinson v. California (1962)

Hutto v. Finney (1978)

Solem v. Helm (1983)

Harmelin v. Michigan (1991)